Disrupts what an Oval record is meant to be.
Once upon a time, about 20 years ago, people thought all the computers in the world would blow up when the new millennium came around. Ambient albums came with bits of data for names and were full of pops and glitches. Computers were new, scary and an endless source of inspiration for forward-thinking artists. Beauty and the Beast was still mind-blowing, to say nothing of Toy Story. It was a time not unlike the vaporwave ‘10s, except people were a lot less snarky and hadn’t quite learned to take the new possibilities at their fingertips for granted.
Markus Popp, the German who scratched, drew on and taped over CDs and released the resultant music as Oval, epitomized the attitudes of the era. His music could be paranoid but also comforting and benevolent—music as much for pondering the benefits of the Information Age as its pitfalls. Popp, his fourteenth and most fearsomely realized album under the name, comes as a sort of answer to his great ‘90s work in reflecting on how far we’ve come since.
The skittering textures, twinkling bells and bits of data for song titles come straight out of the ‘90s. The coiling Auto-Tune and punched-in samples (could Popp have gotten his hands on an MPC sampler?) are distinctly modern. At times, Popp sounds less like a holdover from the “intelligent dance music” era as it does the best album James Ferraro never recorded.
Popp announces it’s a different beast from the rest of the Oval discography from the first few bars of “ai.” When Popp works within a rhythmic framework it tends to be fragmented and abstracted, but no, that’s definitely a beat we’re hearing on “ai.” It could have come from a Gold Panda record. All of the tracks start more or less the same way, announcing themselves with a basic rhythm track or fragment of melody before Popp fills in the spaces with all manner of undulating voices and pattering drums. He even brings in real vibraphones on “ku” and “lo.”
The biggest break from Popp’s past work is how benevolent it all sounds. A whiff of techno-paranoia hung over some of the more recent Oval work, like O and its second disc of “ringtones,” but there’s no unease or uncertainty on Popp, just joy. The melodies are major-key. The vocal samples sound like fuzzy cartoon characters. Every now and again, he’ll throw in a big, satisfying noise like a chime sweep or rave whoosh that makes you sink back and close your eyes just to savor it. Popp sounds like it wants to jump right in your lap and lick your face.
There are also fewer of the one-minute sketches that have been a constant on latter-day Oval albums; everything here is around four and a half minutes. There’s no filler, which is to say, it’s all filler. Every track is more or less a variation on the same theme. But Popp never gets tiresome. It rushes by at breakneck, thrilling speed and its 43 minutes feel far shorter.
There’s a lot to love about Popp, but perhaps the most exciting thing about it is that it disrupts what an Oval record is meant to be. Albums like 94diskont and Ovalcommers were the sound of the artist surrendering himself to data, giving his role as “musician” up to the machine. Here, the positions are switched; this is Popp in full control, deftly bending the machines to his will, and the result is some of the best and most masterfully produced electronic music of the year.